Political Realism

The last presidential election in the United States was undoubtedly an election unconstrained by political reality, feasibility, and truth. Both parties saw candidates from the outside make huge promises and sweeping generalizations during the campaign, with little or no consideration for how things could actually work in our political environment and economic system. President Trump outlandishly called for a wall along our southern border though few felt that it would be practical, possible, or effective, and Senator Sanders passionately announced his desire for a new healthcare system run entirely by the federal government, all the while downplaying the program’s costs, its political unfeasibility, and the fact that he did not have much of the implementation planned out.

 

Political realism operates in a different way than seems to be successful in our extravagant presidential elections. We prize bold energetic ideas and characters when electing a president, and realism is left to the side. To be a political realist, you have to be honest about the current situation, about how the status quo could change, and about what improvements or harms could possible arise. Observing that the status quo is not too bad and that there are may potentially worse situations that society could be facing does not win elections, but being more aware and asking these types of questions does help government improve.

 

Large grandiose plans and visions do not hold up over the long term. It is important for policy planners and decision-makers to think about political feasibility and to think about alternatives so that plans can be chosen that can actually be implemented and to meet the needs of society. We live in a world with limited resources like time and money, so we must think rationally and strategically about what we have. Large sweeping changes and plans are difficult because they must find a new way to rearrange the already limited resources we have.

 

Jonathan Rauch describes political realists in his book Political Realism by writing, “Always, the realists, asks: ‘Compared with what?’ Principles alone mean little until examined in the harsh light of real-world alternatives.” When we elect leaders based entirely on principle and charisma, and not based on an evaluation of alternatives, we end up in a place where good plans are abandoned for fantastic plans that could never truly be put in place, at least not in a good way. When our leaders are constrained to a limited set of principles, their policy options are limited and less imaginative, and as a result, good policy is thrown out. If we can’t meet all our principles in this model (our current model for politics) then we don’t take any action and we don’t improve the status quo in any meaningful way. Political realism isn’t sexy and doesn’t always win elections, but it does help society move forward with policy that can actually be implemented.

 

Today, as I reflect back on this quick post that I originally wrote in May of 2018, I can’t help but think about the power of signaling. At the end of the school semester I read Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain and was captivated by a conversation that Hanson had with Tyler Cowen. Much of what we do in politics is signaling, and describing grandiose plans and visions signals your belief in the future prosperity of the country. Your huge plan is also a signal to voters that they should align with you because you think that what we need is the most scaled up version of what your co-partisans say is necessary. In a sense, politicians are signaling their loyalty and willingness to defend party ideas, even if those ideas are practically impossible. Political realism just can’t bring the same signaling firepower to the conversation, and may ultimately signal a betrayal of the party platform and a betrayal of a core group identity.
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Trust In Government

People today have lost trust in government. We have too many actors, too many points of view, too many opinions, and too many bad stories about the government. The days when politicians were less ideological, less partisan, and could be more moderate with their views and opinions are behind us. This does not mean, however, that we are stuck in a system of gridlock and argument for ever. We can still challenge our own assumptions and the assumptions of others by better understanding our political system and thinking more deeply about our opinions. Working through our priors and getting beyond our negativity and cynicism gives us a way to improve our own thought process and ultimately to improve government and the ways in which society interacts with government.

 

In Political Realism Jonathan Rauch writes, “Gone is the trust that government will “do the right thing,” replaced by an assumption that transactional politics is a rigged game played by and for special interests.” In our country we hate interest groups and lobbyists. We hate anyone with money who seems to be interfering in our elections or our processes, and cry out against the evils of big money. Except, not always. We only seem to hate special interests and lobbyists when they don’t represent us. Most republicans probably don’t think of the NRA as a special interest or as a lobbying group, and most Democrats probably don’t think of unions as evil big money organizations. When you begin to think about the groups and activists that you support or favor, you start to gain a better understanding of why lobbyists and interest groups exist. By looking inward and trying to understand your own political ideas, beliefs, and assumptions, you can begin to better understand other people’s opinions, beliefs, and assumptions, giving you a way to better relate to people with different thoughts.

 

Reflecting and looking inward also helps us see just how transient our policy beliefs truly are. When we become more self-aware and more self-reflective, we are able to better understand where our beliefs and opinions come from. I try to follow politics actively, trying to focus more on the policy side than on the horse-race political side, and I notice constantly that my opinions are greatly shaped by the person who comes up with an idea. When President Trump says something, I have an almost visceral reaction assuming that his idea is full of self-interest and short sighted thoughts and is undoubtedly the opposite of what we should actually do in terms of policy. At the same time however, I know that my thoughts and opinions on things like national debt are woefully underdeveloped. I can recognize that I have some thoughts and beliefs about how our nation and society should be structured, but those thoughts are not necessarily based on scientific evidence, but general thoughts, my view of my identity, and to some extent my own self-interest. What this means, is that I should back away to some extent when I recognize that  my opinion is influenced by prejudices and judgement about the opposing political party or politician.

 

This may not help us achieve more transactional politics and it may not increase trust in government directly, but this strategy can help us begin to back away from such staunch opposition to opposing parties and people. By recognizing when we don’t have full information and when we are allowing our judgement of the speaker to shape our beliefs of the policy, we can start to be more civil in our discussions. This in turn can help us as a country moderate our discussions and opinions, and ultimately, bring politics back to the center where it can be more transactional and less volatile.

Issue Based Politics

I believe that politics has always been about identity and about how individuals understood what was in their own self-interest, but in the past politics did not carry such a strong issue based focus, which meant that politics could have more compromise and rational solutions. Jonathan Rauch looks at the ways politics has changed in recent years to understand why our system feels broken and is unable to take action on major issues. Some of the changes in our system are the result of population and demographic changes, and some of the changes in our system are the result of reforms that were intended  to make America more democratic and transparent.

Throughout his book Political Realism, Rauch quotes James Q. Wilson’s 1962 book The Amateur Democrat, noting how accurate many of Wilson’s predictions were regarding the transformations that began to take place in American democracy in the middle of the century. One quote that Rauch includes from Wilson is,

“The need to employ issues as incentives and to distinguish one’s party from the opposition along policy lines will mean that political conflict will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party’s ability to produce agreement by trading issue free resources will be reduced.”

Wilson accurately predicted where politics would end up as our two parties became more ideologically separated and as our parties transformed by competing against each other in a zero sum political system. Many of our decisions and opinions are not formed today through rational process, but instead are formed based entirely on our opposition to the other party. I would argue that most people don’t have a coherent set of issue stances, but instead inform their decisions based on cues from party leaders or based on signals from opposing parties. We also elect politicians based solely on their fidelity to issue stances, making compromise within legislative bodies impossible. There is no way to put politics back into the disordered system of the past where party did not exactly represent issue stances, but we should at least recognize and acknowledge that effective politics sometimes needs to be flexible on issue stances to be able to function.

What I find the most challenging in today’s political system is that we often don’t understand many of the issues that we say are our driving motivations. When asked why we vote the way we do, we often claim that we are voting because an issue is important to us and that a candidate really supports our preferences on that issue. Often times however, we don’t fully understand the issue or a candidates position on an issue. What we favor is simply that a candidate understands the political ques related to an issue and can demonstrate their loyalty to our side or their opposition to another side based on the issue in question.

Formal Power Structures

In the United States, and every democracy, political parties play an important role in organizing and structuring the political process. In his book, Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch looks at the ways that parties have shaped American politics and examines recent trends that have taken power away from parties. Rauch is concerned because political parties establish formal power structures, and when they are removed, the functions they performed do not disappear, but instead shift to other actors, who are often uncontrolled and anonymous.

 

Rauch quotes James Q. Wilson who wrote a book in 1962 titled The Amateur Democrat which looked at the Democratic Party in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. All three cities had their own form of machine politics which Wilson examines in depth at a local level. Even at that time, Wilson noticed the tension between political parties, traditional candidates, activists, and amateur political candidates. Rauch quotes Wilson’s findings writing, “despite being nominally on the same side (all Democrats)…a keen antipathy inevitably develops between the new and the conventional politicians.” Activists are more radical and are focused on getting a win on their particular issue right now, where as professional politicians focus on a long-term game, understanding that decisions need to be made today, tomorrow, one year from now, ten years from now, and a hundred years from now. The process for making decisions over such a time span is important, and it is parties, not enthused activists, that create a structure to allow such decisions to be made over the long run.

 

Wilson describes other essential functions of parties and Rauch describes them in his book, “They recruit candidates, mobilize voters, and assemble power within the formal government. … If legal power is badly fragmented among many independent elective officials and widely decentralized among many levels of government, the need for informal methods of assembling power becomes great.”

 

We do not always like our political parties, often because their decisions are not tough enough on the things we don’t like and don’t go as far as we want on the things we do like. Our parties may seem to be too willing to compromise or may appear to be too influenced by other interests than our own, but parties are importantly balancing power and influence in a structured system. If you take parties away or limit their control and influence, you end up in a system where money is finding alternative ways to influence the public and where hidden actors or zealous activists and political junkies shape the direction of politics.

 

While parties are not always positive forces, they tend to be more stable forces. Their slowness to adapt to important issues and their long-term posturing that does not reflect the wishes of citizens today is frustrating and feels undemocratic, but they are a chaos buffer, stabilizing the system, normalizing behavior, and creating political structures that posture politicians and opposing political forces for the long-run. We should recognize that taking power from the party will not necessarily give us the positive outcomes we want. Reducing the influence of parties simply shifts the who and how of political influence, and opening the system to ever more participation by political amateurs and activists can turn governance into chaos.

Political Machines

Recently (though challenged by the current presidential administration), in the United States, our trend has been toward ever increasing democracy. We have more participation in our elections, more direct election of representatives, and we all expect to have more of a voice in the political process. Along the way we have focused on high minded ideals such as transparency, direct public decision-making, and increased platforms for voicing opinions. However, as Max Weber predicted, government, organizations, and society have become and continue to grow more and more complex. Human nature, however, has not changed.

 

Jonathan Rauch from the Brookings Institute argues in his book, Political Realism, that we have made changes to our system, our government oversight, and to the political arena that are intended to bring positive consequences, but have also brought confusion and gridlock. Our efforts to fight every appearance of corruption has made it challenging to build strong parties. Our efforts to limit the influence of money in legislative voting has eliminated quid-pro-quo trades for votes between legislators. Transparency into government decisions and deliberations has combined with social media to give us great insight into the decisions and beliefs of legislators, keeping their actions under a microscope. Each of these changes sounds like a good thing, but in the end, they create a system that is almost unworkable, where participants cannot be fully human.

 

Regarding the changes we have made, Rauch writes, “government cannot govern unless political machines or something like them exist and work, because machines are uniquely willing and able to negotiate compromises and make them stick. —progressive, populist, and libertarian reformers have joined forces to wage a decades-long war against machine politics by weakening political insider’s control of money, nominations, negotiations, and other essential tools of political leadership.” Rauch is highlighting the fact that machines can build coalitions, can link together like-minded individuals on certain issues, encourage them to commit to support other issues, create safe places for debate, and break through gridlock. Our transparency in politics has limited the effectiveness of machines by broadcasting discussions. Our democratic grabs at political primaries has limited parties from directing candidate selection, and has left us vulnerable to demagogues and celebrities with unsound political beliefs.

 

I would not argue that we should try to undue all the changes we have made to our political system, and I don’t think Rauch would argue for such dramatic changes either. But what we can do, is create some spaces and institutions that operate with a greater focus on the long-term continuous political process and not on winning short term political games. One can easily argue that our system of primaries is less democratic now, because only the most ideologically extreme participate in parties, leading to the selection of candidates that do not match the public. Wrestling control of party nominations away from the public may give us more moderate and representative candidates, who actually better represent the people who are supposedly electing them in a democratic fashion. Allowing for backroom discussions within politics can also help our representatives move forward with more legislation. Forcing each candidate to openly voice their arguments for or against a bill can put legislators in a catch-22 situation, a bill must pass on a national level, but may be politically toxic on a local level. We should expect that priorities, even on small local levels, will conflict, and expecting a perfect answer from each politician for each vote is unrealistic and potentially damaging to the over all process. These are the arguments that Rauch presents throughout his book, which is designed to start a conversation around how we govern ourselves and relate to our political process. Striving for more fair, more understandable, and better democratic systems is always a good goal, but sometimes our virtues trip up the system because we are political animals who need to negotiate challenging deals, build teams and coalitions, and make sacrifices to compromise on important issues for people at local, state, and national levels.

Realists

In 2015, Jonathan Rauch from the Brookings Institute wrote a book about how politics should to operate in order to actually get anything done. His book, Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy, cuts against our traditional thoughts about the ways in which we can improve our society and country. Rauch looks at movements that have great moral purposes, but that seem to make general duties within government more difficult and challenging. Particularly in legislative bodies today, government seems to be operating poorly and in a way that stokes the flames of partisan anger and opposition. Very few people have a positive view of any governmental agency, and if there is one thing all American’s seem to have in common today, it is a distrust of political parties and a sense of disgust toward national political bodies.

However, our government did not always have such a negative public view and did not always struggle to act on even basic legislation. Rauch begins his book by discussing some of the tools that government has used to clear a path for basic legislation and functioning. Of generations past in the United States he writes, “not being fools or crooks, they understood that much of what politicians do to bring order from chaos, like buying support with post offices and bridges, looks unappealing in isolation and up close, but they saw that the alternatives were worse. In other words, they were realists.” Previous generations understood the negative perception of the shady things that seemed to take place in government. They recognized the danger of fraud and corruption, and they acknowledged the need to hide under the table business. Nevertheless, these were tools that helped the country move forward. Rauch argues that today, operating with a government that cannot move anything forward, what we need is a little more of this old-school politics, and a little less of today’s sunshine disinfectant.

Where this all stems from is the most basic flaw of human societies. We can only be rational about  the ways in which we get to our ends, we cannot be rational about the ends themselves. This is to say that the goals and the desired outcomes we want to see in society are inevitably and unavoidably political. How we choose what society wants, what society should do, who we should help, who gets to be part of our group, and what will be excluded from society is not a scientific question but rather a question of identity and self-interest. These questions are simply political with no possible answer satisfying everyone.

Human rationality can only be applied once an end has been selected. Once we have agreed on an outcome, or once a majority voice has selected the desired end state, we can rationally work out the best way to get there. It is like a group of 10 couples who all must decide when and where they want to take a vacation as a big group. There is no perfect destination to satisfy everyone’s desires of seeing family, visiting big tourist items, and finding off the grid treasures. But once a decision has been made, the group can identify the most efficient route to take that maximizes the time spent viewing what most everyone wants. If the group primarily wants to spend time at a beach in southern Spain, then the most efficient travel option is a flight directly to Southern Spain, and the travel rout that flies into Bilbao in northern Spain then uses public transportation southward across the country is not considered. However, if visiting art museums and seeing a wide swath of Spanish culture is the main goal of the trip, flying to and staying in coastal southern towns is not a rational option to meet the goals, but flying into Bilbao and traveling across the country by bus is an ideal plan. The end goals must be selected before a rational decision can be made to meet that decision, but seeing art and culture is not inherently better than relaxing on a Mediterranean beach.

Government will always be hampered by this question, no matter how rational or how similar we become and no matter how good our artificial intelligence one day becomes. Government therefore, needs a way to move things forward that deescalates the tension of identity and self-interest. This is the argument that Rauch puts forward. He does not argue for the backrooms filled with cigar smoke and fat cats driving the show. After all, generations before did give us painfully slow desegregation and a political period rife with presidential assassinations and violent racial protests. What we can plausibly see however, is a system where discussions and deliberations can be secret, because what may be good for the nation could be toxic for an individual based on their constituency’s identity and self-interest.

What ultimately needs to be remembered is that government cannot rationally chose and advance a goal. Government can do its best to reach its desired end state, but selecting an end that hurts some and leaves representatives vulnerable creates a system where some members must oppose all action by that government as a signal to their compassion, concern, and identification with their constituents. A government with hidden deliberations and gear greasing allows for compromise and realistic legislation. Some discussions must be allowed to take place in ways that shield legislative members from direct criticism so that they cannot later be attacked and vilified for decisions that hurt some but move the majority in the right direction. Government needs a way to be a little bit wasteful and a way to put up with a little bit of abuse in order to move society forward. Constantly patrolling for abuse and waste is expensive and ultimately makes people less likely to take action and try to make things better.

Social Constructionism in Physics and … Everything!

I just finished a semester at the University of Nevada focusing on Public Policy as part of a Masters in Public Administration. Throughout the semester we focused on rational models of public policy and decision-making, but we constantly returned to the ways in which those models break down and cannot completely inform ad shape the public policy making process. We select our goals via political processes and develop rational means for reaching those political ends. There is no way to take a policy or its administration out of the hands and minds of humans to have an objective and rational process free of the differences which arise when we all have different perspectives on an issue.

 

Surprisingly, this is also what we see when we look at physics, and it is one of the big stumbling blocks preventing us from linking Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. Throughout her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter introduces us to the biggest concepts and challenges within the world of physics and how she and her dad attempted to make sense of those concepts on their own. A major influencer on the world of physics, and consequently on the adventure that Gefter took, was John Wheeler, who seemed to bring an idea of social construction to the rational and scientific world of physics. Wheeler described the idea of the self observing universe, to say that we are matter, observing other matter, creating our reality as we observe it. This idea exactly the idea of social construction in politics and governance that I touched on in the opening note. Gefter quotes a note in one of Wheeler’s notebooks, “Add ‘Participant’ to ‘Undecidable Propositions’ to Arrive at Physics.”

 

Social Constructionism is a theory from  the social sciences. It is used to describe the ways in which a society or group comes to understand the problems it faces: who is at fault for the problem, who receives a benefit from our problem solution, who has the right to complain about a problem, and in what order should we attempt to solve our problems? These are all serious questions to which there is no perfect answer. We cannot identify a perfectly rational answer that will satisfy everyone. Our individual preferences will always be at play and our interactions in the decision-making process will shape the outcomes we decide we want and the solutions we decide to implement to reach those outcomes. In a sense, these large political questions are like the undecidable propositions described by Wheeler. Politics is the outcome we arrive at when you add participants to undecidable propositions in society, and physics is what you arrive at when you add participants with limited knowledge and limited perspectives to the observation and understanding of major questions about the workings of the universe.

 

We use questions of social science to inform the way we think about our interactions with other people and how we form societies. Social Constructionism reminds us that what seems clear and obvious to us, may seem different to someone else with different experiences, different backgrounds, different needs, and different expectations. Keeping this theory in mind helps us better connect with other people and helps us see the world in new ways. Similarly, physics informs how we understand the universe to be ordered and how matter and energy interact within the universe. Recognizing that our perspective matters, when it comes to science and physics, helps us to consider our own biases and prior conceptions which may influence exactly how we choose to study and experiment with the universe. Keeping social constructionism in mind also helps us understand why we choose to study certain aspects of science and why we present our findings in the ways that we do. We may never be able to get to a purely rational place in either science or politics (though science is certainly much closer), but understanding and knowing where social construction plays a part will help us be more observant and honest about what we say, study, believe, and discover.